By David Kier
Co-author of ‘The Old Missions of Baja & Alta California, 1697-1834’
Fifteen years passed by before the Jesuits were able to establish another mission, and the first one in the northern half of the California peninsula. Padre Fernando Consag had made expeditions seeking potential mission sites, and was baptizing natives in advance for the next mission. The first expedition was in June, 1746 in four small sail boats. They traveled along the Gulf of California coast from San Carlos (northeast of San Ignacio) to the Colorado River. This expedition had again confirmed that California was not an island. Padre Ugarte and Padre Kino had found this to be the case years before on their expeditions to the north. Consag’s findings convinced his superiors to connect the missions of California with those in Sonora, so a push to build north was finally made.
The second Consag expedition was by land in May, 1751. It began north of San Ignacio at a place with a small stream that Consag called La Piedad. They traveled northwest nearly to Punta Baja before returning. Consag found no place that offered any better site for a new mission than did La Piedad. Padre Consag baptized over 500 Indians in 1751 and assigned them to the future mission.
The proposed new mission’s name was ‘Dolores del Norte’. That name appeared on maps and Jesuit reports for many years, but Dolores del Norte was a mission on paper only. This had caused some travelers and writers in the 20th Century to believe that it was a lost mission. Some have also called the visita ruins in San Pablo Canyon as being the mission of Dolores del Norte.
Consag began preparing the La Piedad site with the help of a highly skilled but blind Cochimí Indian named Andrés Comanají. Comanají took the name ‘Sistiaga’ out of affection for his former teacher (Padre Sibastían de Sistiaga) at Mulegé. Andrés Comanají Sistiaga managed the construction at La Piedad for the future mission. Its official founding would occur once a new priest was available and ready.
The name of the new mission was changed to Santa Gertrudis by request of the benefactor, the Marqués de Villapuente. He had funded the mission at San José del Cabo, but left instructions that if that mission was ever closed, his money was to be used to establish a mission in the land of the Cochimí. Mission San José del Cabo was abandoned by the Jesuits in 1748. Padre Jorge Retz opened Santa Gertrudis on July15, 1752, following a year of training at San Ignacio learning the Cochimí language.
Hundreds and hundreds of Cochimí came to be baptized and join the mission. Desiring the mission to be self-sufficient, Padre Retz had ditches dug into solid rock to transport water from the spring to fields he had cleared and filled with soil. Wheat and corn grew and was harvested. Eventually the vineyards produced mission wine in tanks created by hollowing boulders, as wooden casks were not available. Figs, peaches, pomegranates and olives grew in the missions orchards. Livestock was raised and Retz had created a mission-oasis in the center of the peninsula’s desert. 1,730 neophytes were reported at Mission Santa Gertrudis in 1762, 10 years after it was founded.
The Jesuits were removed from California and replaced by the Franciscans in 1768. Padre Dionisio Basterra was placed in charge of about 1,360 neophytes at Santa Gertrudis. Spain’s Visitador General José de Gálvez ordered some of the Santa Gertrudis neophytes south to populate missions needing labor for their farmlands. Other Franciscans at Santa Gertrudis included Padre Juan Sancho de la Torre and Padre Gregorio Amúrrio.
In 1773, the Dominicans arrived to take over the mission operations in Old (or Lower) California, and the Franciscans would operate missions in New (or Upper) California. In 1782, the population at Santa Gertrudis had dropped to 317. The cut stone mission church replaced the earlier adobe one and was completed in 1796. In 1800, the population was down to 203. Padre Segismundo Foncubierta signed a circular while at Santa Gertrudis, in 1812. One of the mission visitas is located in San Pablo Canyon, a site sometimes misnamed ‘Dolores del Norte’. San Pablo is located east of Vizcaino and reached by trail using a guide as it is located inside a protected archeological zone.
Santa Gertrudis is located just north of the border between Baja California and Baja California Sur, 23 miles east of El Arco. Another route is 40 dirt road miles from Highway One, starting 7 miles north of Vizcaino and going through the abandoned village of Guillermo Prieto.
David Kier is co-author of ‘The Old Missions of Baja & Alta California, 1697-1834’. The book is available for purchase HERE or at the DBTC offices (call 800-727-2252).